1st casualty in Iraq war vows to fight “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’
Eric Alva lost a leg for his country.
Now, he’s doing everything he can to try to change that country.
Alva, 36, a gay former Marine who was the first U.S. soldier injured in Operation Iraqi Freedom, has been named the Human Right’s Campaign’s spokesman for its push to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“It’s a double-standard policy,” says Alva, a native and resident of San Antonio. “It’s time to stop treating people unfairly and give them the full equality that they deserve.”
Alva was 19 when he joined the Marines. That was before “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” when gays were not allowed in the military regardless of whether they were open about it. Alva says as little as a rumor that someone was gay, even if it were false, could have led to a dishonorable discharge.
“When I came in, they were still doing the witch hunts,” he says.
Alva says he’s unsure whether he lied on the enlistment form that asked about his sexual orientation, because he hadn’t fully come to grips with it. “I probably was lying unconsciously.”
It wasn’t until some three years later that Alva met a straight guy who grew suspicious and questioned him. Alva came clean, and the straight guy, who had a gay brother, took Alva’s phone number to another gay friend.
“I was always staying on base,” Alva says of his first three years. “I was always by myself. That was like kind of my first introduction.”
Although Alva finally knew, he confided in few others for fear of disciplinary action. He says those whom he told never had any problem with it.
“I loved the job I was doing,” he says. “I was a good Marine. My personal life was not something I took to work with me. My personal goal was to accomplish the mission.”
Alva was promoted to staff sergeant, and he served in Somalia and Japan before being sent to Iraq. It was three hours into the ground war, on March 21, 2003, when Alva’s supply unit made its first rest stop. He had gotten out of his vehicle and was a eating an MRE on the hood. Then he went to retrieve something from the passenger side.
“To this day I still don’t know what it was. I never made it,” Alva says.
Alva stepped on a land mine, which blew off a leg and threw him 15 feet. He also broke his other leg and an arm, but he said he never lost consciousness.
“I didn’t realize how bad it was until after surgery when I woke up back in Kuwait city,” he says. “I cried like crazy. I was like, “‘This isn’t happening.’
“You go through a period of the crying all the time,” he adds. “Then you go through a period of anger the why me, why me. Then you go through a period of recovery.”
From hero to activist
Upon his return from Iraq, Alva was visited by President Bush, first lady Laura Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He appeared on “Oprah,” and was profiled in People Magazine.
And all the while, he kept his secret.
He says it wasn’t until one night last fall that it came to him. He had always wanted to help people, but wasn’t sure how.
“I would always talk about it, but it was more words just coming out of my mouth because I never did anything about it,” he says.
After Alva’s partner, whom he met after returning from Iraq, pleaded with him to do something before his notoriety wore off, Alva decided to e-mail HRC.
“I said, “‘I don’t know how I may help you, but the story is I am a gay Marine,'” Alva recalls.
A few days later, HRC returned his call. Then, after U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., announced plans to reintroduce the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” they called again.
“They called and said, “‘Eric, we need you now,'” Alva says. “I knew that what I was about to do was a huge sacrifice on my part. But I needed to tell people that this is the way the country should be.”
Since then, it’s been another whirlwind of TV appearances, media interviews and speeches. Alva said things died down slightly until Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently called homosexuality immoral.
“Thanks to Gen. Pace, I have a job again,” he says. “Gen. Pace, all he did was just add fuel to the fire on our behalf.”
Asked what he would say if he had a chance to meet Pace, Alva replies: “Please reconsider how you feel. Really look inside yourself and think about how you are treating people in this country.”
Alva quickly dismisses the argument used most frequently by supporters of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” that allowing gays to serve openly would negatively impact morale and unit cohesion.
“That’s a lame excuse, really,” he says. “People said the same thing when they were going to integrate black troops with white troops.”
Though it may take time, Alva says he is confident “Don’t ask, don’t tell” will be repealed.
“I believe there is momentum growing in Washington and around the country, that people are tired of seeing people treated unfairly,” he says.
As for his personal life, Alva says he’ll receive his degree in social work from Our Lady of the Lake University this fall. After that, he plans to work with people with disabilities and continue advocating for people’s rights.
Asked whether he’d do it all again, Alva says he’s not big on what-ifs. “I’m happy in life where I am now,” he says. “I have no regrets of what I’ve gone through. I am where I am.”